Mary, Martha, and Jesus as ways of life

Jesus’ gift to Mary and Martha

  • Luke 10:38-42
  • John 12:1-9

Luke 10:38-42

Now as [Jesus and the disciples] went on their way, he entered a certain village,
where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.
She had a sister named Mary,
who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.
But Martha was distracted by her many tasks;
so she came to [Jesus] and asked,
‘[Jesus], do you not care that my sister has left me
to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’

But [Jesus] answered her,
‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things;
there is need of only one thing.
Mary has chosen the better part,
which will not be taken away from her.’

Mary & Martha in context

Jesus’ relationship with Mary and Martha is one of the more endearing stories about Jesus. Yet this short seemingly straight forward story of Jesus visiting Mary and Martha seems a bit perplexing or even troubling. What is Jesus saying to these two dear sisters?

One of the curiosities of Jesus’ relationship with Mary and Martha is that Martha speaks and Mary is silent.

Let’s see and hear this story in context – at least in the context that Luke sets out for us in this Gospel.

Jesus appointed 70 followers and sent them out to teach and heal in his name. They are also to bring a blessing of peace for each household they visit. When they are offered hospitality they are to accept that hospitality and when they are refused hospitality they are to wipe the dust of that place off their feet and go on to the next place (10:1-12).

Shortly after that Jesus tells the Parable of the Good Samaritan in answer to a lawyer’s questions about “inheriting eternal life” and “Who is my neighbor?” The answer to eternal life is what happens now, in this life – “Love God, neighbor and self.” And, of course, in the parable, the answer as to who was truly a “neighbor” is “The one who showed mercy” (10:25-37).

Both stories are about “hospitality.” And yet in the very next scene Jesus visits Mary and Martha. Martha busily offers hospitality. Mary sits and listens. Martha protests to Jesus about Mary’s inhospitable unhelpfulness. And Jesus rebukes her for being “worried and distracted by many things” and points out that “Mary has chosen the better way.”

Mary’s gift

Who is Mary and what is “the better way” that she embodies according to Jesus?

A few years ago my mom and dad were visiting us. One evening I was in the kitchen making dinner and mom was sitting at the counter talking with me as I was cooking. Somehow we got on the subject of being busy. I don’t remember the exact conversation but I remember that Mom was saying something about feeling guilty because she is not able to do much anymore. I said something like: “Mom, after 80 years of life you deserve to not do much anymore.” Mom quickly replied, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop!” That brought up some childhood memories! Have you ever heard that one before?

We better keep busy because “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” I told my mother that over the years I have ever so slowly learned the value of silence and waiting upon God and trying not to be so busy “doing something” all the time. That didn’t impress my mother very much. She has lived 89 years with a strong Mennonite farm work ethic that says in word and action, “Don’t just sit there, do something.”

I learned well in my Mennonite farm childhood the gospel of  “Don’t just sit there, do something.” My greater struggle has been to hear the counter-gospel, “Don’t just do something, sit there.” The week before last I enjoyed 3 days of almost total silence on retreat alone – at Jesus’ feet – in a cabin by the waters of Puget Sound. I say almost silence because the only sound that reminded me of the real world was the roar of Navy jets flying overhead from the Naval Air Station on Whidbey Island.

Mary somehow knew that “Don’t just do something, sit there” was what was called for at that time with Jesus. She sat at Jesus’ feet and listened. She was present to Jesus in that time and place. We could say that she embodied the contemplative life.

What was Jesus condemning Martha and what was Jesus commending in Mary?

Is it being caught up in a busy body worried work life that Jesus is criticizing? Jesus accepts Martha’s hospitality. He also clearly criticizes her for letting anxiety and business consume her life.

Is it knowing when to just sit there and when to be busy that Jesus was encouraging?

Just before sending out the 70, Jesus spoke another strange word to his followers:

Let the dead bury their own dead;
but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God. Luke 10:60

Jesus always seemed to be surrounded by people in need, yet he went off to the mountain to pray at various times. He seems to have found a rhythm of action and contemplation that was healthy in an intensely busy life.

Is it being a listening presence that Jesus received from Mary that is “the better part?”
Jesus certainly valued knowing how to be present with someone and to truly listen to them.

Jesus’ gift……and challenge to Mary and Martha

In response to Martha’s plea for help, and presumably fairness, Jesus points Martha to
“One thing” and calls it “the better part.”

What is this “one thing” that Jesus says is “the better part?”
How is this “one thing” that Mary embodied really “better” than what Martha did?

Perhaps we get a sense of it by considering a key word characterizing Martha in this interaction with Jesus. Martha rightly offered hospitality and “welcomed Jesus into her home.” If you offer hospitality to another, isn’t that more than simply saying, “Welcome! Come in and hang out. But I am not going to offer any more than that.” Don’t you have to offer your guest something more? Even a cup of cold water? Doesn’t truly being with Jesus completely re-orient our anxious toil and keep us embodied in the present with Jesus? Jesus calls us to a way of  “being” that is grounded in listening presence rather than anxious business.

Possible story: Lauren Parke, from Seattle and who worshipped with us on September 21, just before leaving on a two-months tour with Soulforce to visit Christian colleges in the South east and foster conversations about exclusion and inclusion of sexual minorities. Lauren and 5 other Soulforce colleagues being arrested last Monday as “unwanted guests” at Palm Beach Atlantic University for trying to walk onto campus to worship in the campus chapel. How is it possible to be an “unwanted guest?”

What are we told that Martha was doing? We aren’t told that Martha was preparing a meal for Jesus. We aren’t told that she was cleaning the guest bedroom for Jesus. We are told that “Martha was distracted by her many tasks.” We could focus on “her many tasks.” But that would all be speculation.

What we are told is that Martha was “distracted.” Martha’s distraction is the operative word in this encounter.

Distraction — distraction — distraction! We are a culture of distraction. This election season is a classic illustration of being a culture of distraction. In the 21 st century, in a presidential election, it is virtually impossible for a presidential candidate to be asked any real questions that aren’t a distraction from real issues or to answer in anything but distracted images and rhetoric.

Twice in the story being “distracted” is identified: Martha was distracted and Jesus named her distraction

A spiritual guide once named that for me in a way that really startled me. It is a quote that has become quit familiar and useful in spiritual companioning. The poet T. S. Elliot gives us the line from the first of his Four Quartets, telling us that we are far too readily “distracted from distraction by distraction” (Burnt Norton).

The opposite of distraction – the counter characteristic or way of being distracted is attention. The spiritual life is the intention and awareness to be attentive, to give your attention to something or someone.

Any good spiritual guide will help you focus your attention – notice how and what you are being attentive to – especially being attentive to God, to Christ, to God’s Presence in the here and now, to Christ in the other.

Here Mary was literally and truly being attentive to Christ in the other who was Jesus. Our being attentive to Christ in the other is also real and really important.

Doing and Being

There are various ways of identifying our Mary and Martha character. Martha has been identified as the active one while Mary is the contemplative one. Or Martha may be seen as the one who is intent on doing while Mary is simply being .

How would you describe your life?
How would you describe our life?

SMC as Mary & Martha with Jesus

I have found myself using the words intense and full a lot this fall when I describe my life — or ours — as SMC and ministry here.

One our greatest challenges is to find people to fulfill all the roles and responsibilities in SMC. We need lots of Marthas in the church! However, an equally great challenge is to sit together at Jesus’ feet – or at each other’s feet. We need Marys in the church also.

It seems to me that the real challenge for each of us and all of us together is how to be both Mary and Martha by embodying a rhythm of being and doing. When to be attentive or contemplative and when to be active is what Jesus calls us to be and do. Another way of saying it is that we are to be attentive while being active and to actively be attentive.

I recently had a conversation with one of you where we got to talking about Mary and Martha and SMC. In one way I heard it as a call for more Martha’s in the church. We need more people doing things. We need more people doing the small things. In another way I heard it is a call for being more like Mary. We need to simply be more often and to be together without doing so much.

I have sometimes wondered what would happen if we called a sabbatical on all committee meetings and organized responsibilities of the church and simply came together to be the church. What do you suppose would happen?

How are we Martha?
How are we Mary?
How do we integrate Mary and Martha?
How do find a healthy rhythm of Mary and Martha?

SMC’s Vision II and ministry today

Hearing Jesus’ encounter with Mary and Martha this week and praying with the charisms which we identified as SMC gifts and vision in 2003, I saw something I hadn’t seen before. Our list of charisms are famed in “discernment” (listening to God and each other) and “worship and spirituality” (knowing that all we are and have comes from God and belongs to God who we worship).

SMC Charisms discerned in 2003 in a process called “Vision II”

Charism is a Greek word used by the Apostle Paul, meaning a “gift” of a special ability from God embodied in a person or group offered for the good of others.

  • Discernment – listening to God in Christ with each other seeking to enter into what the Spirit is doing among us
  • Local Outreach – the mission and ministry of the church in the Lake City neighborhood and the Seattle area with particular care for people without a home
  • Peace and Justice – being bearers and builders of peace with justice as a light to the world
  • Walking in Cross-Culture Relationship – building relationships with people from different cultures especially in partnership with ministries already doing this
  • Diaconate – Greek word meaning “helper”– welcoming newcomers and each other into worship and all aspects of our life together and assisting those in need
  • Worship and Spirituality – offering extravagant reverence for the Divine in ways that fosters listening to the Spirit of Christ that dwells in our hearts